By Blake Stilwell

No matter how many disappointments the Buffalo Bills suffer on the gridiron, there is no loss that can compare to the tragedy of losing one of their own on the battlefield.

Many professional athletes answered the call to serve in the Vietnam War, but only one professional sports team lost one of its players. When Bob Kalsu arrived in South Vietnam in November 1969, he was a newly minted second lieutenant. His first command was with the 101st Airborne at an important but remote outpost called Fire Support Base Ripcord.

Number 61 – Bob Kelsu

Fresh from being named Buffalo’s Rookie of the Year, Kalsu was sent to Vietnam to satisfy his Reserve Officers Training Corps requirement and was looking forward to returning to his home in Oklahoma (and to the Bills) as soon as possible. He would never make it.

Fire Support Base Ripcord overlooked the A Shau Valley, a key entry point for North Vietnamese troops and supplies coming from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in neighboring Laos. It was also the site of some of the war’s heaviest fighting.

The 101st was the only full-strength division left in South Vietnam as President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy ramped up and U.S. troops were withdrawn. American efforts in the valley were aimed at pacifying the population in the area through rural reconstruction, but first, elements of the North Vietnamese Army, or PAVN, had to be eliminated. The 101st was sent to the A Shau Valley in a planned attack on nearby PAVN forces.

But the communists hit first, in what would become one of the most fiercely fought battles of the war at the time. Ripcord sat on top of a hill 3,000 feet above sea level and was completely dependent on helicopters for resupply and extraction. It housed artillery support for two battalions of 101st Screaming Eagles engaged in anti-PAVN operations in the valley. They were also shelling the Ho Chi Minh Trail, just 13 miles away.

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Kalsu, in command of an artillery battery, was creating such a pain for the PAVN troops that the North Vietnamese decided something had to be done. The Americans at Ripcord didn’t realize they were surrounded by 5,000 communist troops.

The communists began firing mortars into the firebase at a rate of an estimated 600 every day. Through it all, Kalsu was running hundreds of pounds of artillery shells to his men on the hills, acts that earned him the undying love and respect of his troops.

On July 21, 1970, the North Vietnamese fired tear gas into Ripcord, rendering its bunkers uninhabitable. Kalsu walked out of the bunker that day and into the open, at the same time a PAVN 82mm mortar was fired from the distance. It landed five feet from where he was standing.

With a sharp crack, Kalsu and some of his fellow soldiers were blown down the bunker stairs. The offensive lineman’s large frame shielded one of his men, Pfc. Nick Fotias, who survived the blast.

Two days after his death, Kalsu’s wife gave birth to their son back home in Oklahoma.

After 23 days of heavy fighting at Ripcord, the U.S. withdrew its troops and supplies; they had to fight their way out even as they evacuated the base. The Americans lost 75 soldiers and a number of helicopters in the fighting and called in the Air Force to bomb the entire area once the soldiers were safely away.

In addition to Kalsu, one former professional athlete was killed in the Vietnam War — the Cleveland Browns’ Don Steinbrunner, who had left the NFL long before the start of the war.

In 2000, the Bills recognized Kalsu’s service and sacrifice by adding his name to the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame.

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